Photo“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

My childhood and adolescence overlapped the sunset years of most people who'd grown up during the Great Depression and fought in World War Two, which might be how I first came across that saying. Or maybe not — the phrase is still in fairly common use today, enough that if you're the type who likes either reading about history or learning new thrifty-living tricks (and I enjoy both), you're bound to come across it sooner or later.

Some of that attitude is also found in the modern emphasis on “re-use, recycle, conserve resources:” for every person who cites climate change, pollution or other environmental concerns to explain, for example, why they're trying to reduce their electricity use, there's someone else whose primary motivation is to save money by reducing their high electric bills.

And, of course, all throughout history there have been careless or wasteful people, offset by those advising caution, economy and thrift. “Waste not, want not,” as Ben Franklin said.

Problem is, not all of the thriftiness advice from history still works today, so ideas that were perfectly sensible and helpful before the Industrial Revolution (and even during the Depression and other hard times afterwards) can be downright counterproductive in 21st-century America.

Make it do

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do.” That doesn't always work with electronics. A few years ago my old DVD player broke, and getting it repaired would've cost $57 for shipping and labor costs, plus I'd've gone up to six weeks before getting the player back. Meanwhile, a new DVD player of the exact same make and model cost only $60. So I threw away what could've been a perfectly useful DVD player, capable of providing entertainment for years to come after a rather minor repair — which simply wasn't worth making.

And the further back in time you go, the more now-useless advice you encounter. Last weekend I read The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child, a 19th-century writer whose best-known work today is probably “The New England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day,” a poem whose first lines are “Over the river and through the wood, to grandfather's house we go....”

But in pre-Civil War days, The American Frugal Housewife was Child's best-known work, a book almost every American bride received as a wedding present. My copy is a modern print reproduction of the 29th edition, copyrighted in 1844; Project Gutenberg offers free downloads of the 12th edition, from 1832.

Some of Child's advice still holds true today (some things never change): in modern times, despite a generally poor economy, low rates of personal savings and high rates of personal debt, the ideas of being frugal, thrifty and careful with money nonetheless have unsavory connotations somehow, especially among those who can't see the distinction between a frugal person and a stingy miser — “the general implication is that you can be frugal, or you can have a reasonably comfortable life (plus friends), but it's an either-or option.”

Sounds like the same held true when Child published her book of frugal household hints over 170 years ago:

Economy is generally despised as a low virtue, tending to make people ungenerous and selfish. This is true of avarice; but it is not so of economy. The man who is economical, is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous. He who thoughtlessly gives away ten dollars, when he owes a hundred more than he can pay, deserves no praise,—he obeys a sudden impulse, more like instinct than reason: it would be real charity to check this feeling; because the good he does may be doubtful, while the injury he does his family and creditors is certain. True economy is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united respectability, prosperity and peace will follow.

Sprinkle salt

PhotoWhile the value of economy (or thrift) is just as high today as it was in Child's time, the actual everyday details of thrifty, economical living have changed considerably. Being frugal today is vastly easier: for starters, thanks to modern food packaging and your refrigerator/freezer, you probably don't share Child's concerns here:

It is necessary to be very careful of fresh meat in the summer season. The moment it is brought into the house, it should be carefully covered from the flies, and put in the coldest place in the cellar. ... If you are not to cook it soon, it is well to sprinkle salt on it.

And in order to meet modern respectability standards, you genuinely need to ignore other bits of advice she offers. For example: when you need vinegar, where do you get it? Not that you're likely to think much about it, ordinarily, but: all the vinegar in my American household came from various grocery stores. We've got relatively small quart bottles of “specialty” vinegars, which have words like “balsamic” or “malt” on their labels, but for plain everyday use we take the cheaper option of buying white store-brand vinegar by the gallon.

Here's what Lydia Child has to say about it:

It is poor economy to buy vinegar by the gallon. Buy a barrel, or half a barrel, of really strong vinegar, when you begin house-keeping. As you use it, fill the barrel with old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings, &c., left in pitchers, decanters or tumblers; weak tea is likewise said to be good: nothing is hurtful, which has a tolerable portion of spirit, or acidity. Care must be taken not to add these things in too large quantities, or too often: if the vinegar once goes weak, it is difficult to restore it ….

Much poorer

Serious advice: even if you like the idea of making your own craft vinegar at home (and Child does offer a recipe involving molasses and sour beer), don't keep a slop barrel full of souring beverage leftovers in your kitchen. Not in 2014 or beyond.

But Child lived and wrote at a time when the world and everybody in it was much, much poorer than today — and also before anybody really understood the germ theory of disease.

A gallon of plain white vinegar today can be had for well under three dollars. So even if you only make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you can “earn” a gallon of clean, strong vinegar in less than half an hour. You also have enough basic knowledge of bacteria and other germs to understand “A barrel of souring food in my kitchen wouldn't just stink; if I'm not careful it'll become a bacterial breeding ground and an actual health hazard.”

But store-bought vinegar (along with everything else) was expensive in Child's day, far more expensive that a mere half-hour's work, and nobody knew about germs either. Saving old cider, sour beer and wine dregs genuinely was a better alternative than buying expensive vinegar, for many people.

And for all the very real problems modern Americans face from high medical or health-insurance costs, at least we don't have to rely on helpful home remedies from the 1840s:

EAR-WAX.—Nothing is better than ear-wax to prevent the painful effects resulting from a wound by a nail, skewer &c. It should be put on as soon as possible. Those who are troubled with cracked lips have found this remedy successful where others have failed. It is one of those sorts of cures, which are very likely to be laughed at; but I know of its having produced very beneficial results.

Modern version: Do not save your earwax, or anything else that comes out of your body (except children, of course). If you suffer a minor puncture wound, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you stop the bleeding, clean the wound, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment or cream (a modern medical marvel which of course did not exist in the 19th century), cover the wound with a clean bandage, and contact your doctor if you see redness, swelling or other signs of infection.

As for chapped lips, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you apply a lubricating lip balm with sunscreen (another product that didn't exist in Child's day), stay hydrated, keep your lips out of the wind and avoid licking them.

"Rage for travelling"

PhotoIn today's America, antibiotic ointment and lip balm can both be bought for less than an hour's minimum wage (with a little money left over). Of course, everybody knows this already, which is why if Lydia Maria Child were alive and writing frugal-living tips now, she'd briefly advise you to keep a supply of cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, antibiotic cream and other basic first-aid items on hand to treat minor wounds, before writing a chapter about avoiding credit card and rent-to-own debt and another one reminding people not to spend money on vacations and other frivolities until their debt is paid off, an updated version of her advice from 1844:

There is one kind of extravagance rapidly increasing in this country, which, in its effects on our purses and our habits, is one of the worst kinds of extravagance; I mean the rage for travelling, and for public amusements. … Look at our steamboats, and stages, and taverns! There you will find mechanics, who have left debts … while they go take a peep at the great canal, or the opera-dancers. There you will find domestics all agog for their wages-worth of travelling; why should they look out for 'a rainy day?' …. People of moderate fortune have just as good a right to travel as the wealthy; but is it not unwise? Do they not injure themselves and their families? You say travelling is cheap. So is staying at home.

Modern translation: “Instead of a vacation, this year try a stay-cation!”

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